Wednesday, December 21

Snow White and the Deus Ex Machina

Where last we left our heroine, she lay dead in a glass coffin. How could she be saved?
The contemporary version we’re using introduces a Prince Charming to kiss her back to life—a literary device called a “deus ex machina.”
The deus ex machina can trace its origins back to Greek playwrights. In ancient Greek theatre, actors playing gods or goddesses would be lifted onto the stage using a crane. Hence, the literal term “god from the machine.” There are still records of both Greek and Roman writers objecting to the concept.
Not because the playwright had employed a machine. The reason behind the machine was the problem. The characters in Greek stories (both plays and mythologies) would sometimes heap so much trouble on their own heads that they could not save themselves. The gods would have to intervene on a character’s behalf. (This intervention was often the reason for writing the play. Every year in ancient Athens, playwrights entered a competition by submitting three related plays, all dealing with one problem and its solution. The gods would sometimes hand-deliver the solution to the troubled characters to show the righteousness of a particular answer.) Of course, sometimes a writer just gets stuck.
Most writers—not to mention that most fearsome subset of critics, our readers—object to any use of a deus ex machina when telling a story. And why not? Introducing a new twist to the story is one thing. Cheating is another. Your fans don’t want you to cheat.
This doesn’t mean your characters don’t need to be saved sometimes. Or that introducing a new character (or any sort of device) is inappropriate. Both are very valid, when used wisely. The question is: how do you bring in a rescuer?
One modern retelling of Snow White is a surprisingly sweet movie called Just Like Heaven. When the Prince Charming archetype first meets the Snow White character, she’s already in the glass coffin. Metaphorically. (She appears as a spirit, haunting her old apartment that he’s currently renting.) After he takes a little while to “wake up” himself, he sets out upon a quest to find and save her. She cannot wake herself up, so she needs him to help her. It’s a neat twist on the Snow White story, told more from the Prince’s perspective than Snow White’s.
Of course, a writer has plenty of other ways to solve a cornered-character dilemma. Renew an old friendship. Plant a beanstalk. Drop a house on a witch. Hire a yodeling woodsman. Oh, wait--that's another story...

What about your story? What does your Snow White need to be saved from? Can she do it herself, or does she need help? Will her help come from someone she already knows, or someone who comes to her aid after she’s stuck?

Sunday, December 18

Snow White and ...

I love a good fairy tale. Always an adventure. Too short to ever include dull moments. As a writer, I can always come back to fairy tales to explore story-telling elements. Characters. Plot development. Foreshadowing. Rhythm and pacing. Imagine my delight upon discovering that not one, but two new tv series were coming out—both based on fairy tales. Of course, how those fairy tales are interpreted in the real world is a little different...

Still, plenty can be celebrated in the retelling of an old story. The reader (or, in television’s case, the viewer) is given so much opportunity to take apart and put together the organic puzzle that is a good story. Where does the story start? How will it end? Where are you, the storyteller, taking me? What can I expect, and will I follow along when you do the unexpected?
When I originally contemplated how I would start this, ABC’s Once Upon a Time provided the perfect opening. Fairy tale characters, trapped in the very unmagical modern world. A curse that can only be broken by someone who must relearn wonderful things like hope and love. And, come on. Who doesn’t love Snow White?
Well, I don’t.
Or, I didn’t. As a study in human relationships, Snow White is fine for dysfunctional mother-daughter character study. But as a romance...? Do girls really want their Prince Charmings to go around kissing corpses? Am I that out of touch?
Much to my delight, research reveals that I am wrong about the story. The “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” we know today—based loosely on the Disney film—isn’t exactly the version that was passed around for hundreds of years. (Click here to see why.) For our purposes, the current understanding of the story will work well. Not so much because I want to complain about a beloved story, but because it leads so nicely into the classic literary device that writers are encouraged to avoid:
                The dreaded Deus Ex Machina.
Snow White, through no fault of her own (well, perhaps a little blame can be laid at her door), is poisoned and left for dead. What to do? How can the writer save her? Enter the Prince. He can revive her, treasure her, and whisk her away to a happily-ever-after life. Very handy trick, pulling a savior out of thin air.
Now, any writer can get stuck. Your friendless character is trapped at the bottom of a mine shaft/about to shoot the presidential nominee/inside seven glass coffins—what else are you going to do, but introduce a new character? The path of a story often paints itself into a corner. Sometimes, because of the character. Sometimes, because of the writer. Next time, I’ll talk more about where “deus ex machina” comes from and some solutions to avoiding it.
How would you solve Snow White’s heavy-eyed dilemma? Come back later in the week for more...